WatchSonoma Watch

New evidence in fight for public access to Lafferty Ranch


Lafferty Ranch advocates say an easement over 905 square feet of private land standing between the public and the proposed nature preserve near Petaluma could finally be secured by newly discovered property records dating back to the Civil War era.

Former Petaluma City Councilman Matt Maguire, left, and present City Council member Mike Healy at the gate to Lafferty Ranch on Sonoma Mountain Road. At left is the Pfendler property, at right is the Tavernetti Family Trust land, Tuesday Oct. 15, 2013. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Former Petaluma City Councilman Matt Maguire, left, and present City Council member Mike Healy at the gate to Lafferty Ranch on Sonoma Mountain Road. At left is the Pfendler property, at right is the Tavernetti Family Trust land, Tuesday Oct. 15, 2013. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

A surveyor’s map cited in 1866 Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meetings as well as an 1869 deed from an adjacent property owner both create a bridge to the landlocked 270-acre preserve, said Petaluma City Councilman Mike Healy, a lawyer who is providing free legal work for the cause.

The documents came to light over the past month as advocates for the park off Sonoma Mountain Road northeast of Petaluma searched for additional evidence to support their lawsuit against opponents, who include neighbors Kimberly Pfendler and the Bettman-Tavernetti family.

“This is an incredibly positive development,” Healy said. “We were hoping it was there and it was.”

Les Perry, Pfendler’s attorney, said he was reviewing the old documents to determine if they have relevance. He said previous documents cited by park advocates were ruled not determinative.

“It’s going to take a little bit of time to review it and ascertain how it relates,” Perry said. “We’re just trying to figure out what it means.”

Petaluma has owned the land since 1959 and for a time used it to provide some of the city’s water. In the 1990s, disputes over public access to the site polarized Petaluma politics and sparked heated legal wrangling.

Pfendler is the widow of Peter Pfendler, a Harvard-educated lawyer and decorated fighter pilot who made his fortune by founding San Francisco-based Polaris Aircraft Leasing Corp., which grew to become the largest company of its kind. Pfendler was the most vocal and vehement leader of Sonoma Mountain property owners who fought the park plan.

At the center of the dispute is a triangular piece of land at a 90-degree turn in Sonoma Mountain Road where multiple property lines converge. Just beyond it is the gate to Lafferty Ranch, the undeveloped property’s sole entrance.

Adjacent property owners argued that the city property was landlocked and they blocked access. They have asserted that the grass and dirt patch between the county road and the Lafferty gate is their private property.

As far back as 1962 the city planned to open the land as a nature preserve available to hikers and other passive recreational uses. The tree-studded, rolling hills provide panoramic views of Petaluma and far beyond, including on clear days the Pacific Ocean.

Park opponents have argued the pockmarked road leading to the land is too narrow and dangerous, and that park users would create a fire risk.

After years of fighting and $900,000 in studies and legal costs, in 2002 Petaluma abandoned further attempts to open the park on its own. Deals with the state and county also fell through, at least in part due to access problems.

In January, the citizens group Friends of Lafferty Park filed a new suit, arguing that an 1877 county map shows the entire width of Sonoma Mountain Road on Lafferty Ranch. Because the county never abandoned any portion of the road easement, nor have the property lines moved, Lafferty Ranch continues to have access to Sonoma Mountain Road, the suit says.

“It’s been a long, bloody battle but we’re not holding grudges,” said Matt Maguire, a former city councilman and member of Friends of Lafferty Park. “We want our park open. And we’re not going to bother people once we’re up there.”

However, earlier this year, Judge Elliot Daum ruled the map was insufficient, giving the plaintiffs until Oct. 24 to amend their lawsuit.

Since then, the citizens group has scoured old property records and found the two new pieces.

Meeting minutes from three Board of Supervisors meetings held the year after the Civil War ended pointed to a hand-drawn map declaring a public road easement over what is now Sonoma Mountain Road, extending to the Lafferty Ranch gate, Healy said.

County employees dug it up, he said.

The other document is a 144-year-old deed from rancher James Moore, who once owned property now held by Pfendler. It also lays out a road that would connect to Lafferty Ranch, Healy said.

Moore’s deed reflects the bygone era, declaring the easement available in perpetuity for people on horseback and in oxen carts or carriages. It also gives permission to “drive cattle and other beasts” across the property.

Healy hired a title researcher to find the 1869 deed among county records.

“It was a fortuitous piece of luck and insight,” he said. “It provides one more valid public road interest. If they wanted to challenge the validity of the 1866 map we have the 1869 deed to fall back on.”

Meanwhile, there is a push for settlement discussions. Petaluma’s City Council has authorized joining the lawsuit and the county has been asked to become a party.

Healy said the newly discovered records should be helpful in negotiations.

“I would think this would want to make them talk,” Healy said. “This is very persuasive evidence in my view.”

5 Responses to “New evidence in fight for public access to Lafferty Ranch”

  1. Wilson says:

    Wayne – A quiet title action is basically a legal ruling on a land dispute. That’s what the issue at hand is. I’ve never heard of eminent domain being associated with Lafferty. I don’t think that it is relevant there.

    These people ARE fighting for something productive – gaining public access to a very special piece of publicly owned land. Fighting for something for 20 years tells me that they really care about Lafferty. How could you possibly doubt that? And education you say? How about all of the school kids that will be able to take a low-cost (massively important in these times) field trip there?

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  2. wayne says:

    People are calling for eminent domain as they have for the past 15 years. If it were that simple, why haven’t the courts ruled in favor of Lafferty?

    I wonder if the people fighting for the park even really care about the park? Why don’t you fight for something more productive in our town, like roads and education?

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  3. James Bennett says:

    So ‘moderator’, you’re not holding my posts ’till nobody sees ‘em, or engaging in your past shenanigans…
    now you’re back to full blown censorship, eh?

    Did this come from the top, or just your biased decision?

    On a ‘political’ site, under the guise of offering a forum for different views?

    Nice job.

    So, if won’t speak the truth, and stifle someone that does.

    That sir, makes you part of the problem.

    And if you don’t see a problem…
    wait a little while.

    You will.

    Rest assured, in your own little way;
    you are complicit.

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  4. Jimbo96 says:

    Les Perry has known about the road easement ever since I told him when I worked for Northwestern Title Co…may have been when it was called New Century Title, but that is immaterial. I disclosed the document to him in title research we did. I do believe he was working for Peter Phendler at the time. I also recall that the Public Works Dept. may have had a map and original survey, but I do know that I did discover the document creating the easement which was granted by the owners of the lands to the North of Lafferty Ranch and ENDED at the Northwest corner of Lafferty Ranch…I also remember that you had to use the proper magnetic deflection when plotting the location. I know I did the work about 15 years ago. I guess that the attorney didn’t have to disclose this evidence that would blow his case apart…the documents are all a matter of public record…just glad I got to look at the actual documents in the bound books rather than poor quality film.

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  5. Follower says:

    We seem to have an over abundance of these despicable human beings who make sport of infringing on people’s Private Property.
    So they found some musty old documents from 144 years ago that will allow them to FORCE people to give up their private property and they pop the Champaign bottles in celebration.

    This isn’t for some lofty cause like a Military base or a Children’s Hospital, no… IT’S A FRIGGIN PARK!

    You people are sick.

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